I want a pork-belly-backed currency, before it’s too late!

It annoys me that it’s taken me this long to start figuring out, I think, why and how money works.

I started writing a long rambling post here on the subject, but it’s too much of a mess so I’ll just skip to the punchline.

Our modern currencies are so-called “fiat currencies”. It used to be that, for example, “a dollar” actually represented and could be traded for a specific amount of refined metallic gold. Now, it’s not really redeemable for any pre-specified amount of anything. I don’t really see this as a huge problem unlike some people, but there is a lot of noise lately about how we need to go back to “the gold standard” (i.e. back to the time when a “dollar” was directly redeemable for some fixed amount of gold). My problem with this is that gold is mostly useless, really. If there were really some sort of horrible society-destroying catastrophe, about the only thing you’d be able to use the gold for is as a bludgeon to club people with (gold is quite heavy, at least), or maybe as radiation shielding if you’ve got enough of it stacked around your basement. If we’ve got to go back to an “asset-backed” currency, I think it ought to be pork-bellies. Or wheat. Or maybe heads of lettuce.

Better still, make it a “basket” of all three, so that fluctuations in the value of one of those three things doesn’t screw up the value of the currency. Plus, then you could redeem 3 $1US bills for a BLT sandwich.

What prompted me to start typing, though, was the thougts of how badly at the mercy of economic parasites we are in the modern world though – I’m thinking here mainly of abusers of “intellectual property” monopolies like broad idea patents and eternal copyrights, who demand tribute before you’re allowed to participate in just about any modern activity using the internet or other digital medium. And then the shocking, horrifying thought came to me: “mp3-download-backed currency”.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over there in the corner, curled up in fetal position, rocking back and forth, and whimpering occasionally.

Don’t forget to feed and walk your mitochondria

Yes, I’m still here – though I don’t know if any of YOU are.

The pay at my job is somewhat low for the skillset it requires, but makes up for that by having a very reasonable workload, a pleasant work environment, and certain perks – like access to the electronic journals that my employer subscribes to. I added an RSS feed from pubmed intended to cover my main interests – basically edible and industrial microbiology and biotechnology. Every day, a list of 300-600 or so new scientific articles pops up in my feedreader and I scan through the titles looking for anything interesting to me. Unintentionally, my selection appears to also result in quite a bit of diabetes, obesity, and sports medicine research. Lately I’ve taken a moderate interest in our own most blatantly bacterial components, the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are kind of like a nearly 2-billion-year-long case of typhus (or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, if you prefer). After infecting our ancestors (and now us) for so long, they’ve been reduced to dependency on living in our cells. Perhaps a bit like the progression from wolves to Chinese Crested dogs. On the other hand, having thoroughly domesticated them, we get a lot of use out of them, and couldn’t live without them. Their ability to harness the electron-sucking power of oxygen means we get almost 20 times more energy out of our food than we otherwise would, which is a good thing since biologically speaking, keeping the hideously complicated mess of biochemistry that makes up a human body takes a ridiculous amount of biochemical energy compared to that of normal organisms (i.e. prokaryotes).

Lately in the stream of new publications I’ve been seeing a number of papers suggesting that a lack of proper mitochondrial activity might be related to obesity and related problems (e.g. “metabolic syndrome”, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, obesity-related “inflammation”, and so on) and even some age-related problems, both physical and mental. There is some seriously interesting research going on into treatments to potentially stimulate mitochondrial activity and whether this might help solve a number of health problems.

So…take good care of your mitochondria. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to pay special attention to properly feeding my mitochondria and making sure I take them for regular walks (and paddling trips and so on). It could, of course, be purely psychosomatic, but right now I feel better than James Brown

There’s a fair amount of rational skepticism over using drugs or nutritional supplements to stimulate mitochondria, but here’s a tip that I suspect everyone’s doctor would accept: make sure you take your mitochondria for regular walks. Frequent exercise (particularly endurance exercise) seems to be a scientifically well-accepted way to induce production of more mitochondria.

But now I have to go to bed. My main complaint with work these days is that it eats up essentially my entire day, leaving me with just enough time for some household chores between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening. Not their fault I live almost and hour and a half from work, though (and at least the commute is through relatively low-traffic and scenic terrain.). Still, it makes it hard to get blog posts and podcasts done (episode 4, on the subject of “heat-fixing” of bacteria for microscopy – particularly Mycobacterium tuberculosis – will be out as soon as I can manage. Still pondering the subject of Episode 5. I’m saving the “Two Mass Spectrometers, High Performance Liquid Chromatography, and a Female Donkey” episode for later when I manage to surpass the “nearly 3” listeners that I seem to be stuck at…)

“Improvements in the Fermentation and Maturation of Beers”

Judging by my webserver’s logs, almost nobody actually bothers to click through the blog-carnival host’s site to read my Giant’s Shoulders” posts. This could be due to a secret conspiracy involving famous bloggers and several shadowy government agencies. I suppose, though, that there’s a chance that simply nobody but me is that interested in non-medical microbiology. Well…today’s post is an attempt to disprove that concept, for what aspect of non-medical microbiology could be more universally appealing than beer?

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to assemble this posting, I see the February host has decided to put the carnival up a day early, undercutting my experiment. See, I told you it was a conspiracy! I suspect the Secret Cabal of Popular Bloggers was getting pressure from the Trilateral Comission, the NSA, and Pepsico® to silence me, so they had to do it. At least being forced to miss one, I am now free from the “I’ve been posting to these since the beginning, I can’t miss one now!” treadmill.

That means, loyal readers, that you get to see this post a month before everyone else! Hooray! Stick it to The Man™! Comically paranoid rantings aside, it also means I can split this up into more than one post, which may be more readable considering how much ground the article in question actually covers. Today’s Classic Scientific Paper is:

Nathan, L:”Improvements in the fermentation and maturation of beers.”; 1930; J. Inst. Brewing; 36; pp538-550

I ran across this reference recently while working my way through an industrial microbiology text[1] that I checked out of the campus library. According to the author of this text, “The use of cylindro-conical vessels in the brewing of lager was first proposed by Nathan (1930)[…]”, referring to the now-ubiquitous style of metal fermenter seen in small brewpubs and “MegaBladderwashCo” large-scale industrial breweries alike. Based on this I had expected the reference to be a digression on the design, construction, and testing of the fermenter. When inter-library loan managed to get me a copy of the paper, I found something much more involved.

The paper is a presentation made by Dr. Leopold Nathan in 1930 to the Scottish section of the Institute of Brewing. The topic was not simply a fermenter design but the entire “Nathan System” of brewing which appears to be the basis of modern large-scale brewing, especially for Lager-type beers. At this point, Dr. Nathan had apparently already been developing this system for about thirty years (apparently starting with a German patent in 1908, which I’ve yet to find a copy of), so as you might guess it was not just a single invention but a whole collection of them. Compared to the more rustic techniques frequently in use at the time, the “Nathan System” of brewing promised to provide faster production, more consistent results, and a better final product. It does this mainly by improving the removal of “trub” (the cloudy bits of protein and such that settle out of the malt-water – the “wort” – after you boil it), preventing infection of the beer with undesirable organisms during the cooling, hops-infusion, and aeration, and by eliminating the need to “age” the brew to make it palatable. The most important improvement in the “Nathan Process” seems to be how he treats the wort between boiling and “pitching”.


For anyone unfamiliar with the brewing process, here’s a Grossly Oversimplified review of the steps:

  • Boil some malt-sugar dissolved in water to sterilize it and to help coagulate the “trub” proteins so they’ll settle out of the liquid.
  • Cool the malt solution and aerate it so that the yeast will grow in it.
  • “Pitch” your yeast into the now-cooled-and-aerated malt-water, in a container that will keep air out while letting out the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast will give of during the fermentation
  • Wait until the yeast get done fermenting, then put the resulting liquid into bottles/kegs/casks/whatever.

Diagram showing the containment vessel, cooling system, and sterile-air generator for the 'Nathan method' of brewing
I’ve added a couple of labels to that image from the paper, which I’m guessing was itself copied from a contemporary patent of Dr. Nathan’s. There are two purposes to this part of the Nathan Process – To cool and aerate the wort quickly without exposing it to risk of contamination, and to move trub and volatile sulfur compounds that would otherwise make the brew taste and smell funny. The hot boiled wort is pumped directly into an insulated vat (labelled “A” in the diagram) from the boiling kettle. At this stage the wort is hot enough to prevent anything from landing in it and growing. Then, the hot wort is pumped from the top of this vat into a clean-room containing a cooling device that the wort is poured on, cooling and aerating it as it flows through. Infection is prevented here by the fact that the room has a continuous stream of “sterilized” (or at least well-filtered) air, which is exhausted through the vent in the ceiling. The cooled, aerated wort is then pumped back out of the room and into the bottom of the insulated container below the still-hot wort.

Because of the large open cooling room with its constant stream of clean air, the cooling and aeration step also allows the volatile sulfurous compounds of “jungbukett” (The “Bouquet of Youth”; the unpleasant smells and tastes of immature beer, described in this paper as ‘onion-like’) to evaporate off and be carried away. Since waiting for these compounds to break down was apparently a primary reason for having to “age” lager before selling it, this not only improves the quality but eliminates the need to store the beer for months after fermentation.

The now-chilled wort then rests back in vat “A” and the trub settles out onto horizontal plates inside the vat, where it stays behind when the clarified wort is pumped out to the fermenters.

I did some poking around, and this appears to be what is described in US Patent# 1,581,194 (application filed in August of 1921), in case you are bored and want to look that up. If not, or if you don’t want to deal with the frustrating hassle of trying to view TIFF files in your browser, I intend to provide a followup post with some more details of the process and some interesting bits I found in it, and I’ll include a pdf of the patents, assuming anyone wants them.

Oh, one last thing – I’ve had no luck getting any biographical information about Dr. Leopold Nathan. Unfortunately when you search for “Leopold Nathan”, the results are clogged with references to a murdering smartass named “Nathan Leopold” instead. Doesn’t Google™ realize that brewmeisters are far more important than obscure murderers? No pictures of him, either, so I can’t even say whether his hairstyle is cooler than Eduard Buchner’s or not.

[1] Stanbury PF, Whitaker A, Hall SJ:”Principles of Fermentation Technology (2nd edition)”; 1995; Elsevier Science, Ltd; Tarrytown NY

Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

In my last submission to “The Giants’ Shoulders” blog carnival, we saw how the famous surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister deftly demonstrated definitively that fermentation processes were caused by live microbes rather than some sort of mysterious soluble substance that just happened to be associated with microbes. In today’s episode, we will see how Eduard Buchner definitely demonstrated that fermentation was caused by a soluble substance that was associated with microbes, and no microbes are actually needed.

Better still…they’re both right. “Wait…what?” Read on, O Seeker of Microbiological Knowledge, and be enlightened by this month’s entry: Continue reading Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

Saccharomyces cerevisiae – Shameless Libertine!

I’ve been wondering about starting my own little yeast-breeding operation. I haven’t yet figured out where you can by the necessary teeny, tiny yeast-sized versions of the Implements of Extremely Impolite Probing that breeders of other species use, but even before that, I need to understand yeast reproduction better in the first place.

I had gotten an impression from some of the stuff that I’d read in a Genetics textbook and online that yeasts were normally haploid, and only became diploid briefly during mating (you see, when an “?” haploid yeast cell and an “a” haploid yeast cell fall in love, sometimes they’ll…). On the other hand, while reading a review of yeast virology[1], the author explicitly wrote that yeast cells are normally diploid. How to resolve this issue? Plus, I was wondering how, if I happened to have a pure culture of a haploid yeast, how could I tell if it was “a” or “?”?

I recently realized that there was one Dr. Bryk in the department where I work who specifically researches yeast chromosomes…so I asked her…

Continue reading Saccharomyces cerevisiae – Shameless Libertine!

Nerd Reading Spasm!

Did I mention the place I work has some amazingly spiffy perks for a nerd like me?

Last night, I was poking around pubmed looking for references to yeast and erythritol (namely, do yeast interact with it, and will they metabolize it?) I found precisely one relevant reference. From 1975. In a Czechoslavokian microbiology journal. A no-longer-existent Czechoslovakian microbiology journal. Even though it was a journal published in English, I didn’t figure I’d be able to find the article I was looking for. It did turn out that the greedy (insert long string of profanity here) anti-open-access “SpringerLink®” Netherlands organization has an electronic copy of the article…which I can get limited access to for a short time for a mere $34.00. Not going to happen, obviously.

Just in case the college had a subscription that would let me get to the article at no extra cost, I checked. No such luck. But…

…The campus medical science library just two buildings over from where I work has dead-tree editions of essentially the entire journal! Im name des Nudelmonster! Instead of paying $34.00, I got a photocopy of the article for about $0.50. Bonus: As I had hoped, the article[1] reports that erythritol is not metabolized by yeasts, although it is taken up to a small extent. That means I can add erythritol (or xylitol or sorbitol or whatever) to must or wort, and it’ll still be there when the yeast finish, leaving the resulting beverage still sweet. Hooray!

Plus, I was also able to get access to an electronic copy of a review of the uses of poly-?-glutamate[2], which I was bemoaning not having access to over on an interesting Small Things Considered post recently.

Speaking of reading, one thing I really could use are any worthwhile books on the general subject of applied/industrial microbiology, bioprocess engineering, fermentation, and so on. “Worthwhile” here means practical texts that are A)primarily about microbiological processes (as opposed to, say, bioengineering of plants) B)Reasonably technical, and C)Either “not very old” or “very old indeed” (I collect old science books).

I’m not a fan of Amazon.com’s abuses of the patent system, but I’m in a hurry since it’s past my bedtime already. Therefore, purely as a sampling of the kinds of books that sounded interesting to me, here is a selection in more or less random order of books that came up in a quick search on amazon.com. Anybody out there have any other suggestions?

Continue reading Nerd Reading Spasm!

Stir-Fried Random: Alferbeetagama!

(Update 20081104T1050: added a minimal embedded flash-based player at the bottom of the post, if you’re willing to settle for mp3 quality and want to listen from your web browser…)
(Update again 20081126: I wish I had realized before that the stupid thing was autoplaying despite explicitly including “autoplay=false” in the parameters. I’ve removed the embedded player again until I find a way to prevent autoplaying. Sorry about anyone that was annoyed by this.)

I was going to post this last night, but there appears to have been another bout of database connection errors again at my ISP (“host blocked due to too many connection errors”). I’m guessing either someone is DOS’ing the database server or one of the other users had some very badly behaved custom code running. They’ve got it fixed now, so here we go…

After staying up too (insert profanity here) late again despite having to get up extra-early this morning to vote before work…here’s the first real episode of Stir-Fried Random. Still only about 10 minutes long – I’d like to make it longer, but it’ll still probably take a few episodes of building up to it. An actual shiny new <audio> tag is included for those with bleeding-edge browsers that support it (let me know if it works – hypothetically the 3.1 Beeta[sic] version of Firefox and I believe the most recent Opera support this.). Otherwise, direct-download is available below the show notes:
Continue reading Stir-Fried Random: Alferbeetagama!

Yeast needs to breathe

Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation deviceAs readers may have guessed from previous posts, my brewing interests are minimally conventional. Fortunately, the Basic Brewing Radio podcast seems to regularly expand well beyond the usual “fermented malt flavored with a tisane of hops” thing (I need to try to make my own “Ginger Beer Plant” from scratch one of these days…). A couple of weeks ago, they did an episode covering an experiment on aeration methods which was very interesting. It does my ego good to know that I correctly guessed how the results would turn out. You can get a copy of the nice write-up of the experiment itself here, but here’s the simple version:

Continue reading Yeast needs to breathe

“Ueber die isolirte Faerbung der Schizomyceten in Schnitt- und Trockenpraeparaten”

The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival is coming up in two days, and I just realized I still haven’t gotten a post up for it yet. So, here it is.

I put up some quick reviews of several classic microbiology-methods papers for the previous edition of this blog carnival, but didn’t actually get around to putting up the one for what is almost certainly the most well-known microbiology technique: “The Gram Stain”. So, this post is about it:

Gram HC: “Ueber die isolirte Faerbung der Schizomyceten in Schnitt- und Trockenpraeparaten”; Fortschritte der Medicin; 1884; vol 2, pp 185-189

That’s “Regarding the Isolational(?) Coloring of Schizomycetes in Cut- [i.e. tissue sections] and Dried Preparations” in “Medical Progress”. The translation hosted by the American Society for Microbiology uses the word “Differential” where I’ve put “Isolational” – which is probably not quite right either but it’ll have to do for now – but I’ll get to that in a moment.

If you’ve ever been exposed to microbiology labwork before, you’ve almost certainly done or at least watched a procedure referred to as a “Gram stain”. In brief, you smear your sample with bacteria on a glass slide and bake it on, then you dump some purple stuff on it, them some brown stuff, then you rinse it briefly with alcohol, then you dump on some pink stuff, and then rinse it in water and look at it under a microscope. Bacteria that stay the original dark purple-blue color of the original purple/brown stuff are considered “Gram Positive”, and those that don’t instead appear the pink color of the last stain, and are considered “Gram Negative”. Many textbook authors and microbiology instructors will breathlessly proclaim that the Gram Stain reveals two “fundamental” categories of bacteria, but I’ll spare you my rant about that.

Properly speaking, this isn’t actually Gram’s stain, as described in his original paper. The modern variations that we’re all taught in microbiology class were developed later, and I believe they are nowadays based mainly on Victor Burke’s 1922 paper on the subject[1].

Regarding the title of the paper: “schizomycete” is what they used to call most kinds of bacteria. “Mycete” meaning “fungus”, as bacteria were assumed to be “plants without chlorophyll” just like molds and mushrooms, and “Schizo-” meaning “split in two”, since bacteria reproduce by splitting into two cells rather than by producing spores like “other” fungi. I say “most” because things like cyanobacteria (“blue-green algae”) or Green Sulfur Bacteria would have been referred to as “Schizophyta” (“fission-plants”). What Gram was originally trying to do wasn’t to differentiate one kind of bacteria from another, either, but to make it easy to tell bacteria from from the nuclei of cells in bacteria-infected tissue.

For that matter, Gram was really metaphorically standing on the shoulders of Koch and Erhlich, as he was building on their technique for staining “tubercle bacteria” – that is, tuberculosis-causing members of the genus Mycobacterium. Gram mentions that you need to stain this type of bacteria for the “usual” 12-24 hours to make this work, incidentally, as opposed to a few minutes for other “schizomycetes”. This suggests that you are expected to have some idea of what you’re going to find before you use the stain, as opposed to the modern implementation which is supposed to tell you something about what kind of bacteria you’re finding.

Still, Gram does report that some bacteria take the stain and some don’t, giving us a preview of the “differential” character of the modern version. He specifically notes typhoid and some causes of bronchial pneumonia fail to hold the stain. Given that Typhoid Fever is caused by a strain of the “Gram-negative” butt-bacter Salmonella enterica, and there are a number of “Gram negative” bacteria as well as “Gram positive” that can cause pneumonia, this makes sense. He also does mention the use of Bismarck Brown R a.k.a. Vesuvine as a counterstain in order to make the nuclei of the infected cells brown in contrast to the dark blue of the infectious bacteria in the tissue.

For much of the century-and-a-quarter since Gram’s publication, the question of why the Gram stain works was thoroughly investigated, and even today I occasionally hear or read assertions to the effect that the Gram Stain isn’t well understood. I disagree with this just as I think its importance to bacterial identification is grossly overblown, and if you want to know why, I have a previous post all about why the Gram stain works and how we know. You may or may not also be interested in an older post regarding whether or not “acid-fast” bacteria like the ones that cause tuberculosis (which don’t stain at all when using the modern version of the Gram stain) are “Gram Positive” or not. As always, if you spot any errors or have any questions, please let me know…

[1] Burke V: “Notes on the Gram Stain with Description of a New Method.” J Bacteriol. 1922 Mar;7(2):159-82.